Thursday, 31 January 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.
While most logical people understand the difficulty in reviving the building industry after the carnage wrought on it by the disastrous Fianna Fáil-led Governments, it is good to finally see real growth in the numbers of new houses being built. However, when many members of the public pass a vacant dwelling, they reasonably ask why it cannot be brought back into use to help those who are living in emergency accommodation or seeking to buy their own home. It is a question I often ask myself and I hope the Minister will provide some answers.
In preparing for the debate on this Commencement matter I started to look at housing statistics in County Westmeath. According to the 2016 census, the total housing stock in the county was just under 37,000 homes, of which 3,728 were classed as vacant. However, in 2017 GeoDirectory, compiled in conjunction with An Post, gave a figure of fewer than 1,500 that were vacant. Therefore, the vacancy level in County Westmeath might either be 10% or 4%. To compound the problem, Westmeath County Council estimated that two thirds of the homes listed by GeoDirectory as vacant were actually occupied. Of those that are left, half are either in probate or the owner is living in a nursing home. This suggests the real vacancy rate is less than 1%. What is the correct figure?
Answering this question is not just an academic exercise but has real-life implications. Could it be that there is a considerable under-response to the census? If that is the case, much of the social planning for housing, schools and health services could be based on flawed figures. Could it be that many of the policies put in place to bring vacant properties back into use are failing to deliver because they are based on notional vacant properties which do not exist? Is there a case to be made that local authorities are using different sets of definitions to minimise the extent of the problem and, therefore, their duty to respond? Does the Department have a current register indicating how many properties are vacant? If so, how is "vacancy" defined? What is the number and how has it been arrived at? Has the Department compiled an audit of the reasons for vacancies and the possibility of returning properties to use? How many properties fall into each category and what can be done to bring these homes back into use? Are there restrictions or impediments, the removal of which could be helpful? To what extent is Government funding, or the lack of it, a limiting factor? What best practice in better performing local authorities could be shared with others? Are there sanctions imposed on local authorities which are not fulfilling their responsibilities?
I keep coming back to the simple question that comes to my mind, as I am sure it comes to the minds of many others, when I see vacant properties. Why can we not use these properties to house people who do not have a home? Last year Westmeath County Council spent €660,000 in providing private emergency accommodation. That money, if used to find and upgrade existing properties, could have been used to provide permanent homes for a dozen families. What has been the uptake of schemes such as the repair and lease scheme? How can they be better promoted? Should we advertise them in local newspapers, as well as on local and community radio stations?
I know that the Minister is familiar with the west side of Athlone because he walked it with me last year when I was seeking funding for an urban regeneration project. He saw that as many as one in three properties was vacant or had vacant units overhead which could be used to house families. This area is no different from many others. The urban regeneration scheme would help areas such as this and I am grateful that the west side of Athlone was among those chosen to receive funding. However, it is a medium to long-term project. What can we do in the short term to put people into homes? How can we free up vacant properties to provide accommodation? If Government funding is not a mitigating factor, the delays and difficulties must be systems failures. I am keen to hear from the Minister on what we can do to alleviate them.